Monday, December 7, 2015

Look Ma, I'm on the TV!

I have a huge post about doing publicity for the book that I've been trying without success to finish, but life has repeatedly gotten in the way. Since I haven't done squat since August, here's something that just happened today. Cheers y'all.

Did my first live tv interview about the book this morning. Gotta say, it was an intense experience. Had to get to the studio in Midtown by 7 a.m., which meant a 5:30 a.m. revelee. When I got to the green room, all that was there was a person to do makeup, an empty kitchen where you could get a cup of water, and monitors showing what was currently on the air.

Milling about this morning were a bunch of guys with yarmulkes who were apparently some sort of glee club there to do a song celebrating Hanukkah, and a guy and a girl who went on before me to debate, in about 4 minutes, the President's comments on ISIS. You can imagine how enlightening that was. There was no food or coffee, and I'd had eaten since I woke up, but that was just as well, I didn't want to run the risk of getting an upset stomach and ralphing all over the set.

I had no idea leading up to this point what questions they'd be asking, so I'd done what someone once told me about tv, which is to go in prepared to make three points, and stick to them as much as possible regardless of what they throw at you. It was nerve wracking though, because I knew I'd only get about four minutes, and how often do you get a chance to talk directly to hundreds of thousands of people in their home?

The producer came in at one point and introduced herself, and said to be ready to talk about graffiti as it relates to popular culture and the genesis of the book. Ok, that helps a little, I thought. My mind immediately went to Banksy, Sheppard Fairey, Kenny Scharf, and maybe Tats Crus' role in Jennifer Lopez' ad for Fiat? It's so hard to know what to say in such a small window of time.

After what felt like an interminable amount of time pacing and rehearsing answers to these and other hypothetical questions, a security guard came in at 7:40 and asked me what time I was supposed to go on. 7:45, I said. Oh, come on then, he said, and led me through a door, down a hall, and up an elevator. I was shown into the studio, seated, and miced. The anchor, whose name I never even learned, confirmed with me that this is about legal graffti, right? I said yes, like 5 Pointz, which thank god, he was familiar with. We chit chatted for about 30 seconds before the cameras were wheeled over, and the teleprompter started. One of the first things he says to me is, "You don't look like Mr. Graffiti."

And the rest, as they say, was history. A gazillion thanks go out to the one and only Rolando Pujol, who made the whole thing happen. YOU ROCK DUDE!

Friday, August 28, 2015

Babies and Books

I can haz baby boy?

The book! The book! She is a here! After god knows how many edits, rewrites, interviews, shoots, re-shoots, transcriptions, analyses, spell-checks, caption follow ups, style changes, photo permission requests, second guesses, and just flat out grinding, it is finally here. Woo hoo!

And as chance would have it, so is our son. WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Yeah, so by a weird cosmic bit of timing, Henry Ignatius Verel, our second child, joined us on Friday, August 14. It's a very strange confluence, and one that presents a few challenges, to say the least, when it comes to promoting the book. But it's a good kind of busy, you know? Momma and child are in good health, and Henry's older sister is thankfully excited too. So no complaints here whatsoever. Ok, I do have some serious bitching in reserve related to extreme sleep deprivtion, but no one would care; this much I know.

If you've been following me on Instagram (and really, why the hell wouldn't you be?), you've seen several sneak previews of the works featured in the book. Since this is a book about art, I'll simply share those posts here, and let them do the talking.
Only 3 weeks till my book "Graffiti Murals" comes out! Pg 117, featuring @cernesto with the #wallnuts in #Gowanus. #graffiti #streetart #Brooklyn
Only 3 weeks till my book "Graffiti Murals" comes out! Pg 117, featuring @werk with the #wallnuts in #Gowanus. #graffiti #streetart #Brooklyn
Well hello there. It's @robotswillkill on page 44. Two weeks till Graffiti Murals! #graffiti #streetart #Brooklyn #veng #overunder #chrisrwk #peeta #never See bio for link to info.
Well hello there. It's @robotswillkill on page 44. Two weeks till Graffiti Murals! #graffiti #streetart #Brooklyn #veng #overunder #chrisrwk #peeta #never
A day after my son came home from the hospital for the first time, the extra copies of my other "baby" arrive. Kickass! #graffiti #streetart #Brooklyn #Queens #Manhattan #StatenIsland #Bronx #nyc
A day after my son came home from the hospital for the first time, the extra copies of my other "baby" arrive. Kickass!   #graffiti #streetart #Brooklyn #Queens #Manhattan #StatenIsland #Bronx #nyc

If you haven't been to Whitlock Ave in the #Bronx to see the @tatscru's #graffiti, what the hell are you waiting for? Just 1 week till the story behind this iconic mural and more is out! Info on "Graffiti Murals" in my bio. #StatenIsland #Manhattan #Queen
If you haven't been to Whitlock Ave in the #Bronx to see the @tatscru's #graffiti, what the hell are you waiting for? Just 1 week till the story behind this iconic mural and more is out! Info on "Graffiti Murals" in my bio. #StatenIsland #Manhattan #Queens

Got #Graffiti? In Manhattan's #Inwood, the answer is "Hell Yes!" The story behind this and more amazing murals is available today! Info on"Graffiti Murals: Exploring the Impacts of Street Art" in my bio. #Crane #Just #Vest #Import #streetart #nyc
Got #Graffiti? In Manhattan's #Inwood, the answer is "Hell Yes!" The story behind this and more amazing murals is available today! Info on"Graffiti Murals: Exploring the Impacts of Street Art" in my bio. #Crane #Just #Vest #Import #streetart #nyc
Pretty sweet, right? I'm really happy with how the graffiti looks in the book, and judging from some of the advance press it's gotten, it seems like others dig it too. Yeah yeah yeah, I know, there's one three star review that sort of trashes me. I'd rather be trashed than ignored. Also, haters gonna hate, blah blah...

Anyway, I feel like now that the book is finished and on the shelves, the real challenge has just begun, which is to get the word out to the folks about it. It's nothing quite as challenging as trying to raise, along with my wife, a 3 year-old and a newborn, but at least I know that the former has, like her daddy, embraced a most kick ass aspect of New York City street culture.

More on this real soon, as soon as I manage to nail down five straight hours of sleep. 


Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Case for Graffiti Murals

As I noted in my last post, I visited Bilbao last month to take part in a conference about the creative industries. It was an phenomenal experience, but the hardest part was trying to distill the crux of my book, which goes on sale on August 28, into 5 to 7 minute presentation.

What really went over best was when I dropped in a slide that connected New York to the local neighborhood of Zorrotzaurre, which only worked because I got there a day early and was able to run to the area and take pictures. You'll also note that it's tailored for the conference, and when I deliver it again, I'll make lots of changes to reflect a new audience.

Anyway, hope y'all like it. Enjoy!

New York City Graffiti Murals

In 1975, New York City was the kind of place where the city’s police and fire unions created this “survival guide.”

Fear City

They were trying to prevent layoffs at the time, and one of their strategies was to promote the fear that the city was completely out of control. Unsurprisingly, the reaction to it was so negative, it was never actually distributed, but it tells you a lot about the way things were back then.

Fast forward 40 years, and you’ll find a very different New York City from that one. The crime that was rampant back then has receded, and real estate prices have sky-rocketed. A penthouse in the One57 tower on Central Park, for instance, sold for $100 million in January.


Graffiti, which also first appeared in the 1970’s, is still present though. It’s no longer the scourge of the subways that it once was, but it is still present, particularly outside of Manhattan. Mind you, it’s very much illegal, and the punishments are quite harsh: A felony charge awaits adults caught doing it, and stores are actually prohibited from displaying real cans of spray paint in their window, lest they tempt teenagers to steal them. Unlike in some European cities, there are no areas of the city where it is legal to do graffiti, so if you want to do it without breaking the law, you have to partner with a building owner.

But despite graffiti’s association with crime, it is very much a part of the cultural fabric of New York City, and in the right context, it can empower local communities and enliven streetscapes that are simply being scrubbed blank today.

I’m talking about this sort of thing:


This is a mural in the central Brooklyn neighborhood of Gowanus that was done with the building owners’ permission. For my thesis, I visited six locations around the New York City metropolitan area to learn how these kinds of murals are created, and the effects they have on the area. Today I’m going to focus on one of those locations, Hunts’ Point in the Bronx.

Hunts Point
The Bronx is the poorest of the five boroughs, or counties, in New York City, and Hunt’s Point is one of the poorest parts of the borough. But it’s also the site of amazing graffiti, thanks to the TATS Cru, a group of graffiti artists who have created a business out of graffiti. In Hunts Point, they do murals like this:

SAM_0315 And this
The TATS Cru’s work in the Bronx is relevant to a conference about Cultural and Creative Industries, because the group members are from the area, and rather than displace the poor, they use the tools of an art form that was invented on the streets, and is extremely democratic. One need only secure a wall and spray paint to bring color to the masses. And that’s what Hector Rodriguez, one of the founders of the TATs Cru, told me when I interviewed him. I quote:

“Not everyone in New York City really has the time to partake in the art culture that’s out there. The stuff that we’re putting out there in these neighborhoods, is the modern day Picassos, Goyas and Monets that bring art and color to other people’s lives. They don’t have any other color in their life, outside of what we’re painting out there.”

Just up the road from Hunt’s Point is another mural that the TATS Cru did that I’d like to share with you.

There are murals like this all over New York City, and they serve a very important function: They preserve local culture and tell residents that their community has value beyond mere real estate values. They are, in the words of Marxist scholar David Harvey, “Marks of Distinction,” which he says represent and I quote, “the collective symbolic capital that a city has accumulated through authenticity, uniqueness, and particular non-replicable qualities.”

Graffiti is a global art form today, but it was born on the streets of New York in the 1960’s and 70’s. It distinguishes New York from other places more than the One57 residential tower that I mentioned earlier, which are simply cogs in the transfer of capital from one global city to another.

I’ll take this over towers like that any day.

Because many New Yorkers still associate graffiti with life in 1975, when 1,645 people were murdered there, it’s easy to understand why city government is hesitant to partner with graffiti artists. For comparison, there were a record low 328 murders last year.

It’s an example of “symbolic interactionism” a theory which states that people interact with each other by interpreting or defining each other’s actions instead of merely reacting to each other's actions. They don’t hate graffiti because of what it is. They hate it because of what it represents, which is a loss of control over space.

New York City currently reclaims that space for building owners for free, by erasing, or “buffing” graffiti, under a program over seen by the Economic Development Corporation. This helps owners regain control of their space, but I would argue that because the city government does not also promote partnerships building owners with artists who might want to create graffiti murals, it is missing out on an opportunity to promote a homegrown creative industry.

Although graffiti murals are primarily found in gentrifying neighborhoods that are popular with artists, such as Bushwick in northern Brooklyn, they can also be found in “uncool” areas like Staten Island, Trenton, New Jersey, and Hunt’s Point. And industrial neighborhoods have always been ripe for murals; I couldn’t help but be amazed at the amount of art in Zorrozaurre. IMG_4274 Regardless of where they are, they have the power to make a junkyard in Hunts Point into an art gallery.

In some cases, building owners hope that murals will help spur gentrification, but many simply desire a space that’s more aesthetically pleasing than graffiti tags. And while most would agree that a wall that’s been buffed clean is better than a wall that looks like this:

My task has been to show how graffiti murals are better than both. The partnerships that currently exist between owners and artists who create murals are significantly better both for them and members of the community, who I also spoke to during my site visits. In Brooklyn, a building owner compared murals to growing a garden in an alley, while a resident of Jersey City said to me, and I quote:

“Tagging is usually done out of vengeance. You know, you’re mad at someone, you’re mad at the person in the building and you just want to tag something, just to let them know that you was here, and you really don’t care if it’s painted over or if it’s clean, you know, when the bricks are clean. But when you do a mural like this, you’re really putting your heart into it. So it’s totally different.”

Finally, there’s the issue of authenticity. In 1939, Walter Benjamin wrote, and I quote, “the uniqueness of the work of art is identical to its embedded-ness in the context of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. What was equally evident to both was its uniqueness, its aura.”

Graffiti murals are derived from the tags that first appeared on the streets and subways of New York. Their aura is on the street, and it’s partly because of this authenticity that people from around the world flock to see the graffiti and street art of New York.

In conclusion, I am optimistic that the people in New York are beginning to understand the value of graffiti murals. The six owners I spoke to for my thesis are great examples of private property owners who prefer art over blank spaces, and there are two other groups that are leading the charge to beautify the city: The city’s department of transportation, and Groundswell, a non profit group.

Graffiti Mural Book Cover
If you’d like to learn more, my thesis is being published in August as a book; I’d be happy to share more info with you on how to buy a copy.

Thank you.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Basque Riddle

New York and Bilbao are different in so many ways. The population variation alone screams out for attention. Bilbao, which is in northern Spain, is home to 350,000 residents in the city proper, and one million people in its entire metropolitan region. You could fit two and a half of those in Brooklyn alone.

And yet, having spent the last five days there for an academic conference at the University of Deusto, I can say there are aspects of Bilbao that are very reminiscent of New York. I was there for a conference that delved into the topic of the creative industries, but I also learned a great deal about post-industrial waterfront development, a topic that is very much on the minds of New Yorkers these days. I got to talk about my book, and although I may share that talk soon, I want to focus more on this fascinating city while it’s still on my mind. After all, I still have a bit of time to focus on the book before it hits the streets on August 28.

Look at me ma, I'm talking about graffiti!
Ground zero for both graffiti and waterfront development, is Zorrotzaurre, a peninsula that sticks out into the river running through the middle of the city. It was the site of heavy industry for decades, but the a huge chunk of it went under or relocated in the 1980’s, and not long after, they moved the port moved five miles north to new facilities on the Bay of Biscay.

Aerial view of Zorrotzuarre By Fernandopascullo - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Parallels between Red Hook are not too far off base, except Zorrotzaurre is even closer to the center of Bilbao than that struggling Brooklyn port. On my first morning there, I ran from my hotel, which was next door to the gargantuan Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim, to a section of it in less than 15 minutes.
The Guggenheim

What I found was amazing. In addition to a few token light industries, I found buildings lining narrow alleys that appeared on the verge of collapse.  Roughly 500 people call Zorrotzaurre home, but from the looks of it, nearly as many graffiti writers call it home as well. As they should, right? Is there anything better than brightly adorned decay, augmented by scads of flora bent on reclaiming a space?
Anybody home?
A butter cup grows in Spain.
Bilbao is Basque, which means it’s more distinct from the rest of Spain than say, New York State is from the United States. It’s also European, so there is a higher tolerance for taxes and the role of the state. But the city does like to think big, which is something New Yorkers can relate to. The Guggenheim was a one in a million, insanely ambitious kind of endeavor that spawned countless imitations, and the list of “Starchitects” who’ve planted their flags here is very impressive: Norman Foster designed the subways, while Santiago Calatrava designed the airport terminal and a bridge across the river.

The Basque Health Department Headquarters, by Coll-Barreu Arquitectos.
How they ever wash the windows is beyond me.
When you visit the wine cellar in the middle of town that Phillipe Starck transformed into a community center in 2005, you can actually peer up at the swimming pool on the fourth floor. Gehry has also returned, to try his hand on another bridge that will link Zorrotzaurre to the mainland when it’s transformed into an island.

And transformed, it will be, by the architect Zaha Hadid, into a brand spanking neighborhood, for 5,000 residents. Some buildings will be saved, and the master plan has space for “creative industries” as well as housing. But when I asked my hosts if there were any plans to include the artists who have taken over the streets of the neighborhood in the mean time, the answer was no. Sound familiar?

Alas, the other quality that Bilbao would seem to have in common with New York is a predilection for top-down initiatives. The logic would seem to be, a space is in a prime location, and is on the water to boot, so wholesale redevelopment is in order, and since graffiti is so ubiquitous around the city that it would cause Bill Bratton to break out in hives, no need to worry if a few blocks of it is demolished in the name of progress, right?

We got yer master plan right here!

There are other concerns about the future of Zorrotzaurre regarding finances, transportation and housing, but the absence of street art in the plan is most baffling to me. To me, the seven or eight gritty and chaotic blocks of art there are representative of the kind of grass roots creativity that is craved by urban dwellers. How that happens, I’m not sure. Jerry Wolkoff’s proposal to invite artists to paint on a space that replaces the old 5 Pointz isn’t the answer, but I suppose that neither is simply leaving one section completely alone, destined to crumble back into earth.

Step right this way to art town.

Surely there must be a middle ground? If it can be found, Bilbao would seem to be a good place for it to happen. Scholars at the University of Deusto are trying to measure the impact of “creative industries” beyond economic measures, an ambitious and intriguing endeavor. And although shiny new spaces like the Guggenheim and the Metro are (more or less) pristine, residents are content to hand over older, less prestigious spaces to artists, even in Casco Viejo, the neighborhood where the city was founded in 1300.

Star boy and me; we go way back.
I'm not the first person to wonder aloud about the possibility of doing things differently; there's a whole raft of articles floating around that critique the so-called "Bilbao Effect." But clearly, just like in New York, they's do well to pay closer attention to what’s happening at the ground level.

Like the pictures? I've got a SHIT TON more here!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

When work and play collide

I'm moving to a new apartment in three days, so I have less than zero time to write, which sucks because I've been thinking a LOT about the possible connections between murals and gentrification ever since it was reported that a gentleman who goes by the tag "Zexor" has declared war on the Bushwick Collective, which of course is based in a neighborhood that is ground zero for gentrification.

Some have suggested that Joseph Ficalora, who heads the collective, is somehow aiming for just this goal, and while I suspect that's bunk, Ficalora apparently doesn't like to talk much (he also ignored a request I sent him before this even came up), which is a shame, because I think it's a huge issue that needs to be addressed. I'll have more on this soon, when we finally get settled in our new corner of Brooklyn.

In leiu of that, please do check out my coverage of Law, Urban Space, and the Future of Artistic Expression, an amazing day-long symposium that Fordham Law's Urban Law Journal put together on Thursday. I cover conferences like this all the time as part of my day job at Fordham, but it's rare when my work intersects so closely with my passion. Who knew the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) could be so fascinating?  I only wish I could have attended all the panels and talks.

Anyway, it was great if for no other reason than it was the first time (that I know of) that Fordham hosted a keynote address by a well respected graffiti artist, in this case, Lady Pink. Check it out; hope you like it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

On Broken Windows and Quality of Life Crime

"Broken Windows" is really enjoying a renaissance, isn't it? I mean, I'm no criminologist, but it's fascinating to see how a grand theory about fighting crime has held such an iron-clad grip on the hearts and minds of leaders for two decades, even as the level and severity of crime has dropped in jaw dropping fashion.

Even Bill DeBlasio, an unrepentant liberal mayor the likes of which New York hasn't seen since the days of dial up modems and flannel shirts, has embraced the notion that you can stop major crimes before they happen by unleashing the wrath of the state on anyone who jumps a turnstyle, drinks in public or tags a building.

He showed his support for it by hiring Bill Bratton to be his police commissioner, and he's stood by it even in the aftermath of Eric Garner's death in Staten Island. Garner was confronted by the police for selling "loosie" cigarettes, the exact kind of "quality of life" crime that falls under the Broken Windows purview. Hizzoner has made notable exceptions when it comes to marijuana and "Stop & Frisk," but otherwise, the message has remained the same: Order = Prosperity, therefore Order must be upheld.
When Yoshi starts showing up around town,
you know all hell is breaking loose.

Except, maybe sometimes not? As has been documented voluminously, members of the NYPD have followed the lead of their reprehensible union leaders and all but rebelled against the city, first with disrespectful displays directed at the mayor, and then in a brief slowdown. One astute commenter noted at the time, this latter action could result in two possibilities:

1) There is a corresponding spike in crime, in which case the NYPD has purposefully put us all at risk to make a stupid political point.

2) There is no corresponding spike in crime, which means "Broken Windows" is a failed strategy and the NYPD's aggressiveness was never necessary.

Now, I have zero tolerance for grown men who spout cartoonish gibberish like "The mayor literally has blood on his hands," and even this guy, who starts out reasonably well, loses me when he slags "anti-police protesters." Um, Steve? They're anti-bad police protesters, not anti all police, ok?

Delores Jones-Brown, a criminologist at John Jay, nailed it recently when she said, somewhat inarticulately, “There is a way in which whether to say anything against the existing policing regime, it gets interpreted as anti-police.”

And eye for an eye, and we'll all go blind.
But while Steve Osborne and his ilk may be blinded by their seething hatred of Al Sharpton, I wholeheartedly support this latter thought, which I feel obliged to print in full:

Most cops I know feel tired of being pushed to do more and more, and then even more. More police productivity has meant far less crime, but at a certain point New York began to feel like, yes, a police state, and the police don’t like it any more than you do. Tremendous successes were achieved in battling crime and making this city a much better place to live and work in and visit. But the time has probably come for the Police Department to ease up on the low-level “broken-windows” stuff while re-evaluating the impact it may or may not have on real, serious crime. No one will welcome this more than the average cop on the beat, who has been pressed to find crime where so much less of it exists.

Makes sense, right? If I were a cop, I'd be annoyed as fuck that I had to spend my time harassing people for minor offenses while simultaneously blamed for inflaming tensions. especially when the city just recorded yet another record low of homicides (328! compared to 2,245 in 1990). People smarter than me have been questioning its effectiveness since 2001 (side note: Dreadful day to have published this op-ed, amiright?) Clearly, something has to change.
The hellhole that is Williamsburg
 The city's never ending war on graffiti is one head in the Broken Windows hydra, so if there is any serious reckoning with the policy, I hope it's would be part of any review. This isn't to say I'm in favor of letting vandals trash residential houses, render signage unusable, and wreck public parks. I'm thinking something more along the lines of asking, why is it that Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Bushwick, arguably the three most graffiti-filled neighborhoods in Brooklyn, are also at the heart of the "Manhattanization of Brooklyn?"

If graffiti is such a gateway to crime, what the hell are all these rich people doing there? Might some of that vandal squad energy be better served somewhere else?

Speaking of which, "Graffiti Murals: Examining the Impact of Street Art" will hit the streets in August. Be sure to reserve your advance copy here.

Happy New Years y'all!